Should you scorn seafood in the American Midwest?

by on February 19, 2014 at 2:25 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

Bruce Arthur, a loyal MR reader, writes to me:

I grew up in a Polish immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, where I was raised on a diet high in seafood. My mother was raised close to the Baltic Sea and we weekly went to the local grocery store and bought a lot of salmon, halibut, sea bass, and scallops. I thought it was absolutely delicious. Sometimes we went to local ethnic grocery stores (generally Italian, the Italians had lived in the neighborhood before the Poles came and still ran a lot of businesses) and bought fish that was whole rather than filleted.

When I went off to college, I encountered people from the East Coast for the first time in my life, and I was shocked to learn that they did not believe that good seafood could possibly exist far away from an ocean coast. They would say things like “I would never eat fish in the Midwest, I wouldn’t trust it!’, which, as an 18 year old who was very much alive after eating a lot of fish in the Midwest, I found absurd.

After all, I thought, isn’t most seafood globally sourced these days? Few of our common food fishes are actually native to the Atlantic Coast, and if you’re flying fish in from the Pacific Northwest, South America, or Oceania, it seems to me that it should be least fresh on the East Coast, which is the part of America furthest away from where these fish are actually caught.

Of course, there could be other factors. Perhaps fish is freshest not closest to the ocean, but in denser areas – if everything is closer together, the places where fish is bought and eaten are presumably closer to the site of its first arrival in the area. Perhaps there’s a cultural factor: fish wasn’t always globally sourced, so perhaps coastal areas have more fish tradition that results in a higher quality of food. But surely the historic high rate of movement within (and into) America weakens that effect.

Anyway, I’m wondering if you have any insight into this. Am I right to scoff at regional seafood snobs, or do they have a point?

The more important reality is that hardly any regions in the United States have good indigenous seafood these days and thus no relative snobbery is justified.  Maine lobster or catfish in parts of the south might be exceptions, and in neither case does the Alchian and Allen theorem hold (i.e., the highest quality goods remain those closest to the source).

In general regional demand effects are strong, as I argue in An Economist Gets Lunch.  People outside of southern Ohio don’t understand good Cincinnati chili and so they don’t get it.  The ingredients can in fact be transferred to North Carolina but they aren’t, least of all with the proper applications.  A lot of good Sichuan dishes can be reproduced reasonably well in the United States, but you don’t get them until the properly demanding clientele is in place (by the way Gourmet Kingdom in Carrboro, NC is excellent).  Who amongst us is a properly demanding judge of asam laksa?  And so on.  One interesting feature of these equilibria is that regional mobility does not seem to undo them.  If you move to southern Ohio, you can rather rapidly become a standard bearer of good taste in chili, but you slack off once you are back in northern Virginia.

SlappedStupid February 19, 2014 at 2:32 am

The same is true of green chili in New Mexico. It is widely herlded as delicious by locals and visitors alike, but has yet to find lasting roots outside the El Paso, Albuquerque and Southern Colorado regions.

Dave Anthony February 19, 2014 at 9:32 am

Hatch chilies are so good, and improve just about every food. Every September when Whole Foods gets a small delivery of them, I buy all of them.

NM Native February 19, 2014 at 10:52 am

*cringe*

It’s “chile,” not “chili”.

Alex February 21, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Actually, chili and chile are both acceptable spellings for such peppers. That New Mexicans prefer the chile spelling doesn’t make the previous posters wrong.

Looks like linguistic snobbery to me.

Tyler February 19, 2014 at 2:38 am

That’s why it helps to have critical mass when it comes to attracting outsiders, whether foreign or domestic, to a city/region. Many upper-class Asians considering living in the US are drawn to San Francisco not because they wish to interact with the Asian community there, but because they know the Asian community there is large enough to sustain close to the type and quality of food culture they expect in cities like Hong Kong or Tokyo (usually too foreign and expensive to attract many European Americans). An Asian supermarket that doesn’t have “that smell” is a huge draw for people from places like HK, Singapore, etc.

Rahul February 19, 2014 at 3:34 am

What percent of seafood consumed in the US today is fresh as opposed to frozen & shipped? That’s a good surrogate for our question, I think.

Al February 19, 2014 at 10:36 am

“An Asian supermarket that doesn’t have ‘that smell’ ” ?

I am unable to figure out what is meant by this.

Tyler February 19, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Most Asian supermarkets in the US have a particular odor. It’s not bad, it’s just a lot of fresh food in a supermarket that usually has neither great economies of scale nor a particularly wealthy clientele. People from developed Asia tend to prefer upscale Asian supermarkets that can provide them with the food they want in a cleaner and more attractive environment, without “that smell”.

Govco February 19, 2014 at 2:45 am

I’m no foodie, but when I rolled home late tonight, dinner turned out be a can of delicious sardines on a toasted everything-bagel smeared with cream cheese.

I don’t know what region produces that particular demand effect, but thank you for that dinner and the other 6 cans of Bonito, mackerel, sardines, trout, etc. in my cupboard.

bon_supp February 19, 2014 at 3:14 am

One region with exceptional indigenous seafood is the Pacific Northwest.

NPW February 19, 2014 at 8:15 am

I haven’t had exceptionally good seafood since I left the West coast for the East. Maryland blue crab has been a dismal experience. I lived in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington. I didn’t realize how good the seafood was there until I found myself throwing away crab in Maryland.

Dan February 19, 2014 at 10:48 am

Unless you were eating your Maryland blue crab on a dock on the Chesapeake, it probably was not *Maryland* blue crab.

Mark Thorson February 19, 2014 at 11:44 am

I’ve noticed that the restaurants here in northern California that offer squid usually use east coast squid, which is recognizable because of the large diameter and thickness of the hood. The flavor is about the same, but the texture of the small west coast squid is so much better. Where did I find excellent west coast squid (Loligo opalescens)? At two places in Maryland — the restaurant at the hotel near the airport and an artisan beer place at the airport. Both were really excellent — better than I can get at most places around here.

Z February 19, 2014 at 1:25 pm

It is a regional thing. Through the south you find the food is spicy and strange like the people. In the northwest the food is fresh, but often bland like the people. In New England, salt is treated like an exotic spice. New England boiled dinner is a crime against humanity. I blame the Irish for that.

Dbltap February 20, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Spot on.The PNW and Alaska have exceptional seafood. However one thing to keep in mind if you have a desire to avoid parasites, frozen seafood is a really really good idea.

Finch February 19, 2014 at 9:11 am

Having spent long periods of time in New England and in the Pacific Northwest, I’m forced to disagree. My only really fond memory of Pacific seafood is the kumamoto oyster.

But then I completely disagree with Tyler’s premise. When I was younger we would buy fish from fishermen, not go to a restaurant in Boston. The trouble is that the authentic American food experience is increasingly hard to find as it’s been priced out of business by immigrant competition. Which is cheaper and different, but not the same thing at all. All the more so in economically successful places like cities, where the natives have better opportunities than the food business.

I agree that the Boston P.F Chang’s is indistinguishable from that in Kansas City.

Roy February 19, 2014 at 12:31 pm

The PNW seafood industry had been decimated. Almost everything you get comes from Alaska anyway.

john personna February 19, 2014 at 10:16 am

Alaska is in the US as well ;-)

I have to admit a similar bias to inland seafood. It just feels incongruent.

They still launch fishing dories a couple miles from my house here in California, but since we are down-current from L.A. I’ve never trusted that either.

Mark Brophy February 19, 2014 at 10:54 am

I went on a business trip to Seattle a few months ago and couldn’t find Pacific salmon in the restaurants. It was disappointing because I won’t eat farmed or Atlantic salmon.

Steve-O February 19, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Perch, walleye, trout, whitefish…

All local and served in midwestern restaurants.

Bluegill, bass, salmon, catfish and more are on lots of dinner tables, too.

Finch February 19, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Wild Atlantic salmon is the way to go if it’s accessible to you, but it’s generally not commercially available.

Pacific salmon comes in five degrees of bad. Most “Atlantic” salmon you find is the Atlantic species farmed in the Pacific, if I recall correctly.

Jim February 19, 2014 at 3:35 pm

None of the restaurants you went to offered chinook or sockeye? They usually specify the species.

What Seattle restaurants catering to tourists tend not to offer is the species tourists tend not to know – smelt, black cod, sardines. These are restaurants that will put Dungeness crab into crabcakes. There ought to be a law.

Dbltap February 20, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Where did you go!?!?

TaiPS February 19, 2014 at 3:41 am

(On Alchian – Allen)
Tyler, I am curious about the pronouncement
* Maine lobster or catfish in parts of the south might be exceptions, and in neither case does the Alchian and Allen theorem hold (i.e., the highest quality goods remain those closest to the source) *
Are you making a direct statement based on observing the quality of lobster in Maine and elsewhere, or are you saying there’s something special to these markets?
I’m not disputing the conclusion (local preference for the good stuff and integrated chains may well dwarf the AA effect which is purely driven by transportation cost and no tariffs), but I am curious as to what exactly you meant.

Mark February 19, 2014 at 3:47 am

When I travel to places like the Midwest, outside of large metropolitan areas like Chicago, it is precisely because of regional demand (and knowledge) issues that I usually avoid seafood and a lot of ethnic foods. Even if the fish is fresh, it more than likely it will be overcooked. And it is for this same reason that I will never eat sushi in Budapest (except, perhaps, at Nobu).

honeyoak February 19, 2014 at 10:02 am

Even if it was average why on earth would you want eat sushi in Budapest? Hungarian food and drink are delicious.

Mark February 20, 2014 at 5:40 am

Yes, Hungarian food is delicious. But if you are eating it for any length of time, you’ll find it extremely limited and basically unhealthy (very unbalanced). Hungary has about the world’s highest rates for things like heart disease, certain cancers and such, mostly related to diet, lack of exercise, smoking and alcohol. If you live here and really care about what you eat, you need much more variety. But that’s hard to do in a society with such a limited food palate and very little curiosity about anything different. I have lived here for years, and have yet to see any leafy green vegetables in the markets. You almost never see a green vegetable of any kind in a restaurant. Hungarians, for the most part, are quite unadventurous when it comes to food.

RM February 19, 2014 at 3:47 am

One is struck by the variety of frozen Bay of Bengal fish in Bangladeshi supermarkets in Hamtramck, MI. I believe you can even find sweet-water Bangladeshi fish. I can only imagine that home-cooked food in Hamtramck (tons of oil and all) would be to die for.

Some home cooked fish curries (one just needs the right amount of sour like tamarind or a less than ripe mango) would make chicken tika masala or vindaloos pale in comparison.

dearieme February 19, 2014 at 6:45 am

When we lived in Edinburgh we found the seafood to be excellent. When we moved to Cambridge, which is about 50 miles from the sea, you couldn’t get decent seafood: for example we bought crab in the market once but had to bin them. (The exception is that a couple of vans from Lowestoft visit the suburbs.) So: 50 miles is enough.

Larry Siegel February 20, 2014 at 1:23 am

That’s because impoverished students can’t afford good food. In London, which is also about 50 miles from the sea, the seafood is excellent.

Brett Champion February 19, 2014 at 7:41 am

Freshness of the fish does of course play a role in how the dish tastes. Fresh fish just tastes better, but it isn’t necessarily any safer than fish you might consume in Denver. I grew up in South Jersey and there are restaurants along the shore where you can literally see people from the restaurant carrying fish into the place that was caught just hours before that. I’ve never had seafood in the DC area (and certainly not Pittsburgh) that came close to how it tastes back home. You just have to know what the local seafood is and choose accordingly.

By the way, while the Chesapeake Bay gets all the attention for crabs, the Delaware Bay crabs are just as good. As far as fish go, stick with sea bass, weakfish, flounder, bluefish, and swordfish, all of which should be plenty fresh in the summer.

Patrick February 19, 2014 at 7:48 am

While regional demand effects are certainly important, I think there are also important cultural/knowledge effects on the supply side. In particular, if the person cooking the seafood didn’t grow up in a culture where the seafood was good, they tend to overlook it. As an East coaster living in Ontario, there is good seafood to be found, but I would never order fish at a restaurant that wasn’t known for it.

Ted Craig February 19, 2014 at 7:50 am

I think part of this snobbishness is based on geographical ignorance. Many people, even in the Midwest, fail to realize the size of the Great Lakes.

Chris S February 19, 2014 at 11:02 am

Agreed – I was just thinking that. Walleye and whitefish in particular, some trout. Smelt too, in the spring when they start to run. Dip a net and pull up a couple dozen at once. Warning: you will be expected to bite the head off the first one you catch each season, but chewing and swallowing it is optional.

Slocum February 19, 2014 at 8:06 am

Fresh whitefish, lake perch, and walleye are all sourced locally in the Great Lakes region — and are excellent. If you ever have the chance, though, I’d personally recommend giving a wide berth to a Wisconsin fish boil. What a sad way to treat delicious fish.

Dave Anthony February 19, 2014 at 9:28 am

I was really impressed with Walleye in Chicago!

Norman Pfyster February 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Being from Wisconsin…oh, hell, fish boils are terrible. But deep-fried perch is one of heaven’s delicacies.

JD February 19, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Friday Perch fry in Marinette Wisconsin … with baked beans, cole slaw, rye bread and french fries. Oh, and don’t forget the pitcher of Leinienkugel!

Ya made my day.

Can’t wait for my next trip home!

Tom February 19, 2014 at 8:55 am

I live in the MIdwest and can tell you seafood barely sells in the food stores. Most of the fish in the seafood section of the supermakets if farm raised. An economist who doesn’t know biology might think salmon fed corn feed pellets and injected with dye to make their flesh pink is no different than salmon from open waters that eat krill, but nutritionists and the like know better. The best fish is the small fish in the cans in the ethnic food sections of the store.

Rahul February 19, 2014 at 9:32 am

Is it legal to inject salmon with pink dye?

RM February 19, 2014 at 9:48 am

I would frame this differently: Is it illegal to inject salmon with pink dye?

honeyoak February 19, 2014 at 10:04 am

From what I understand, the dye is in the food pellets.

Rahul February 19, 2014 at 11:46 am

Now I’m hoping this whole thing isn’t yet another urban legend / conspiracy theory.

Mark Thorson February 19, 2014 at 11:57 am

Yes, it’s usually synthetic astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is the natural carotenoid which gives salmon flesh its hue, which comes from the shrimp they eat. There is a test which can distinguish synthetic from natural astaxanthin in salmon, which relies on the natural form being one chiral form while the synthetic is a racemic mixture. There are companies selling natural astaxanthin derived from krill or algae for use in fish feed, but it’s more expensive than the synthetic.

john personna February 19, 2014 at 10:24 am

I thought I saw a DNA investigation that found “salmon” to be something else dyed pink … but I can’t find a link now. Certainly there is lots of “fish fraud” going on though.

zbicyclist February 19, 2014 at 10:08 am

Good point about Cincinnati chili. I acquired a taste for it and was pleased when a small Cincy chili place opened near my office in downtown Chicago — where nearly every place is crowded during M-F lunchtime.

The chili was great, but it didn’t take and the place closed in less than a year.

john personna February 19, 2014 at 10:17 am

So Tyler, do you eat the little fried fish at Korean restaurants? That one has always looked particularly suspicious to me, like something caught by some kid off a polluted harbor pier.

Brian LeDuc February 19, 2014 at 10:59 am

I live in Chapel Hill and love Gourmet Kingdom. It’s a big menu, though and results have not always been as good as we’d hoped. Recommendations?

Chris S February 19, 2014 at 11:06 am

Access to good high end seafood is a function of your proximity to a large international airport and local demand. Most of the midwest, “fish” is breaded and fried cod or similar, served with fries and beer. The more urban areas – especially Chicago – will do better. Best bet is to get to know your fishmonger.

Rahul February 19, 2014 at 11:47 am

….for the small fraction that still goes to a fishmonger. :)

Chris S February 19, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Any true fish lover has his fishmonger’s home phone number.

Sunset Shazz February 19, 2014 at 11:50 am

Best seafood in America can be found in the desert in Las Vegas, NV.

sunbomb February 19, 2014 at 11:57 am

+1 for Gourment Kingdom in Carrboro, NC. That’s the place that introduced me to the Sichuan peppercorn. Their Sichuan fish in peppercorn sauce is to die for.

ritebrother February 21, 2014 at 2:37 pm

That sounds great! I didn’t know such a great Sichuan place existed in the area – I need to check it out.

Bob February 19, 2014 at 12:22 pm

The difficulty of sourcing is a big issue when it comes to how well a cuisine travels. Take, for instance, Spanish food. You’ll find many a chef that goes to Spain for training. But when they come back, do they make Spanish recipes? No, because the recipes are very sensitive to ingredient quality. So all you get is tapas bars, which rely on dishes that are much easier to substitute, since there’s a lot more condiment to them. It’s pretty amusing, since for a Spaniard, tapas is what you have when you don’t really want to go have a real dinner.

JasonL February 19, 2014 at 1:40 pm

There is no such thing as good Cincinnati chili. The whole thing is a mess from the surplus of water to the excess sugar and cinnamon. I have no problems with the serve it on spaghetti concept, and I’m not a purist in chili nor pizza nor barbeque nor any other regional food that creates strife. I’m just saying, Cincinnati chili is just a bad product. A better choice from the region would have been goetta.

GU February 19, 2014 at 1:43 pm

Chicago has a much larger number of ethnic neighborhoods/grocery stores, as well as foodies, than any other place in the Midwest. If you are out at a decent restaurant, I would not hesitate to order fish. As others have alluded to, there are local Lake Michigan fish, and other fish is flown in as part of the global supply chain which supplies the coasts with most of their fish as well. Perhaps avoid fish at the more proletarian restaurants in Chicago (and the Midwest generally).

Unless you’re upper middle-class or higher, or ethnic, most people who grow up in the Midwest don’t eat fish often. When they do, it will usually be fried, often as part of a “fish fry” on Fridays for lent. As Tyler hinted, this is the real reason the Midwest is not the best place for seafood–lack of discerning consumers. Though I’d like to reiterate that decent restaurants in Chicago are fine for fish (critical mass of immigrants and foodies).

sourcreamus February 19, 2014 at 2:53 pm

I remember Rush Limbaugh once talking about a conversation he had with an economist about why the seafood in Kansas City was so good. He said the economist said that it was due to shipping costs. It was as expensive to send bad seafood to Kansas City as it was to send good seafood, so the best thing to do was only send the best seafood. Thus there was not much seafood available but what was there was very good and expensive.

David Koziol February 19, 2014 at 3:00 pm

I also grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago and we also ate a lot of fish. Largely whitefish of different varieties, largely local great lakes fish. I miss the Friday Fish Fry, to be honest.

Al Turnbull February 19, 2014 at 3:40 pm

In Spain this is all about demand: a lot of the best seafood in the country goes to Madrid (in the geographical centre) because that is where the richest consumers live, who in turn support the most expensive restaurants. A Galician fisherman is not going to sell a fish at home for 5 Euro that he can sell in Madrid for 15 Euro; and there are more people in Madrid willing to pay 50 Euro for that same fish in a restaurant. I would be interested if there were any examples worldwide where a fisherman could get the best price by selling his fish locally. In general, the richest people don’t seem to live in the same place as the fishermen.

Bruce February 19, 2014 at 5:20 pm

This is the guy who emailed Tyler in the OP. I just wanted to add for reference that most of the fish I ate growing up in Chicago was not locally sourced: it was salmon, halibut, sea bass, etc., not Great Lakes fish. I did occasionally have whitefish from Lake Superior but I thought it tasted a bit funny.

ChrisA February 19, 2014 at 7:57 pm

I bet all these fish snobs would not be able to tell the difference between wild and farmed, and fresh and frozen in a blind tasting. It’s like wine, the label not the contents determines the level of enjoyment.

Mark Thorson February 19, 2014 at 8:54 pm

When it comes to shrimp and prawns, it’s only wild-caught for me. It’s not about the flavor, it’s about the filthy conditions under which farmed shrimp/prawns are grown, the filth they are fed as food, and the heavy use of antibiotics because of those factors.

That said, I’ve recently discovered the gulf shrimp sold in 2 lb. bags at Whole Foods for $16.99 is one of the few bargains in that store. The price is right and the quality is outstanding. Much better than the wild-caught Argentinian red shrimp sometimes available at Trader Joe’s. The flesh is so delicate — not like other shrimp I’ve had.

Dbltap February 20, 2014 at 5:38 pm

If you can’t tell the difference between wild and farmed salmon you are, by definition, not a fish snob. Why any fish snob would eat salmon that had not been frozen 1st is beyond my level of understanding.

Dan King February 19, 2014 at 8:30 pm

The best sushi place I know of is Sushi Umi in Terre Haute, IN.

Don’t ask me why.

CTee February 19, 2014 at 9:20 pm

I always thought the seafood situation was pretty good growing up in the pac NW, but not necessarily at restaurants. Its best to either fish yourself, or find a good market, both of which could be difficult.

Nowadays I have it extremely good on a tiny equatorial Pacific Island (not a part of the USA), where we have great selection of fish (yellowfin, skipjack, wahoo, mahi mahi, marlin, barracuda, and many, many more which I don’t know the English name of)… all of which is $0.50-$1.00 per pound, fresh off the boat. We have 3 or 4 edible varieties of crab, a nice lobster population, and some random mollusks whose English names I don’t know… all $0.50-$2 per pound, all as fresh as fresh gets. I’m assuming price is kept down by the fact that this is a poor island with no tourism. I do miss oysters though.

Rahul February 19, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Pure random curiosity, but what are you doing on a “tiny equatorial Pacific Island”.

MR has commentators from the most exotic of places & occupations. Love that!

CTee February 19, 2014 at 11:41 pm

Living and working in the education field (policy and administration type stuff mostly). My income is a fraction of what it would be in the USA, plus I miss the diversity (diversity of people, food, things to do, etc.) in the states, but in other ways my quality of life is much higher here.

Mark Thorson February 19, 2014 at 11:23 pm

I’d watch out for heavy metals. Most fish are predators, so they concentrate heavy metals at each step of the food chain. You can give yourself heavy metal poisoning by eating fish every day. This is true even if you live far away from sources of industrial pollution, because there are natural sources of heavy metals.

CTee February 19, 2014 at 11:51 pm

I do wish I knew more about the science here and how great the risk really is. Maybe someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I always hoped that it might help that I tend to buy smaller/younger specimens of the large varieities of ocean fish (say buying a 15lb yellowfin as opposed to a 100lb yellowfin). Plus I eat lots of small reef fish which are not so far along the food chain.

Mark Thorson February 20, 2014 at 10:52 pm

You seem to be following good practices. Younger is better, according to this:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_in_fish

sandy horwitt February 20, 2014 at 8:52 am

I live in Arlington, VA but grew up in Milwaukee, WI. On my frequent trips back to Milwaukee, I return with a suitcase full of Lake Superior whitefish, walleye and trout (plus various flavors of Kopp’s frozen custard and the world’s best corned beef from Jake’s). The TSA inevitably searches my suitcase. If you live near the Great Lakes, your chances of getting great fish are pretty good.–Sandy Horwitt

DCBillS February 21, 2014 at 9:11 am

Unlike most posters I am familiar with fish. I’ve fished commercially and fish “recreationally” more than a hundred times a year. Fresh is everything. Fresh means never frozen and not more than four hours old at room temp or 2 days at 32 degrees. Most of you have never eaten fresh fish. It has no fish taste for most species and is bland. If you don’t know what you are eating it can be very difficult to guess what it is in most cases.

I never eat local fish here which means nothing above the 301 bridge. It is not safe because of pollutants. I avoid fresh water fish because of parasites and a “muddy” taste. Local fresh water fish will be at their best for the next month. The cold water eliminates off flavors.

Restaurant fish is seldom very good. I know of no local restaurants that have really good fish. In Florida good fish can rarely be had but it is possible. Try Singletons at the St Johns ferry in Mayport (Jacksonville) for their sheepshead and shrimp. In Islamorada I’ve had good luck at Lazy Days. In general hogfish will be good in the Keys. It is rare and gets good care as a rule.

If you insist on eating grocery store fish, you might as well buy frozen cod or haddock. (Must specify product of US.) It is cheap and is handled well until it is unloaded from the boat.

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